It was the early hours of a Sunday morning last March at a popular Soho juice bar when staff had the red dot of a Taser trained on them by police. Joe and the Juice employees were suspected of breaking lockdown with an illicit party, workers cowered in the toilets as police bust through the front door, and it was a while before anyone had the chance to explain that it was a “work gathering”.
Quite a dramatic contrast over in Downing Street, where Boris Johnson’s government has dodged questions while holding tight for a civil service probe into “wine time” Fridays, Christmas get-togethers and a bring-your-own-booze garden party at Number 10.
After weeks of delay, Sue Gray’s Partygate investigation has sparked a Scotland Yard probe into whether Covid regulations may have been breached at a string of alleged events in Downing Street. Some of the attendees may claim ignorance, innocence or confusion, but when members of the public offered those excuses, it was mitigation and not an effective defence.
‘Ignorance is not an excuse’
In December 2020, pub landlord Nigel Ince was dishing up Scotch eggs as “substantial meals” at the Old Red Lion in High Holborn when police came knocking. He was fined more than £1,000 after conceding he had misjudged the rules imposed on hospitality “because an MP had gone on the TV and said that a Scotch egg is sufficient”. The following month, the chef at the Little Ochi wine bar in Herne Hill, Gregory Gordon, held his hands up when customers were ignoring the Covid rules. “Ignorance is not an excuse,” he said, pleading guilty and receiving a £1,200 fine. “I will take the blame.”
Office parties had been banned in the run-up to Christmas 2020, and City of London Police clearly took the rules seriously when issuing a £10,000 fine to an unnamed City firm which threw a boozy bash at their Bishopsgate offices. So it will be intriguing to see how the allegations swirling around Whitehall are handled. In the firing line is a Conservative HQ staff party – featuring mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey - on December 14, 2020, an online quiz the following day at Downing Street where the PM was pictured sat next to aides wearing tinsel and a Santa hat, and claims of partying at the Department for Transport and in the Cabinet Office.
The Partygate scandal began with leaked news of a cheese and wine night in Downing Street on December 18, 2020. On the same day as the event in Number 10, three women were doing something strikingly similar — attending a party. Ebru Sen, 26, from Sittingbourne in Kent, Ami Goto, 23, from Marylebone, and Emilia Petruta-Cristea, 24, from Wanstead, all fell foul of the law, ending up with criminal convictions and a £1,100 fine each.
Bring your own booze
During lockdowns, the Met operated dedicated Covid patrols, with vans of officers on standby across the capital to break up illicit gatherings. Fines of £10,000 were dished out to party planners, while their guests could expect £200 penalties. The hardline approach adopted by the force was shown in the case of Olawale Ogunye, the owner of hipster venue Pong London, who was prosecuted for an alleged illicit gathering on New Year’s Eve 2020 despite his protestations that “it was not an event, nor was it a party”. “We had four or five of the staff/promoters who had been working together all through the pandemic going to clean the venue for us and while at it, we allowed some complimentary beverages,” said the businessman, as he was ultimately found not guilty at court.
The relentless pursuit of ordinary people through the courts continues unabated
Less than two months into the first national lockdown, the PM’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, emailed around 100 people, suggesting “socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden”. Social events had been all but banned in spring 2020, and the prosecution of 28-year-old Nuradeem Mohammed reminds us just how strict the rules were. Mohammed, from Hayes, west London, was fined £100 for standing in the street with other people on May 20, 2020 — the same day as Mr Reynolds’s bring-your-own-booze party. In April 2020, four friends were accosted by police as they sat in the sunshine in an Ealing park, with cans of beer and a BBQ laid out nearby. In spite of their excuses, a court imposed financial penalties totalling almost £2,500.
The unflinching nature of Covid-19 prosecutions is perhaps best exemplified by the case against persistent beggar Lorraine Kent, who was ordered to pay nearly £2,500 for sitting in the car park outside Streatham’s Tesco Extra during the third national lockdown. Kent, 58, was given a month to pay the court bill or face bailiff action, more fines, or even possibly prison.
Police have come down hard on those caught organising mass events that were banned under the Government’s rules. A Pc asked for the “highest possible fine” when Clint Bone, 44, put on a Kensington warehouse party on December 30, 2020. DJ Jayden Elworthy threw a rave on marshland in Enfield in May 2021, suggesting he was “saving lives on the dancefloor”, and is now fundraising to pay his £12,000 fine. QPR footballer Ody Alfa admitted organising a “small birthday gathering” last March that “got out of hand” when 100 people turned up, earning him a £5,000 fine. Now that the Met Police is looking into the activities in Downing Street and Whitehall, it will face intense pressure to act if there are allegations that mirror the prosecutions already pursued against members of the public.
‘Nobody told me’ it was a party
Johnson has been ridiculed for suggesting he wasn’t warned the bring-your-own-booze party in his own garden might be against the rules. Facing more than ridicule was a 66-year-old Brockley man, who was fined £100 for having a drink with friends at his allotment while collecting vegetables. “I did not wish to break the law,” he said in mitigation, urging Westminster magistrates to consider his ill-health when passing sentence. In a separate case which echoes the PM’s claim to have inadvertently attended a rule-breaking garden party, an estate agent from Eltham was fined £250 for being at a birthday gathering, having “popped round” with a card for a friend and “didn’t realise there would be other people present”.
Johnson now faces yet another allegation, that a 56th birthday party complete with singing and cake was held in his honour in the Cabinet Room on June 19, 2020. Enfield resident Torino Reid was handed a £14,000 fine when he threw a disco party in his shed for his niece in December 2020, when a police officer slammed him for “significant disregard for both the restrictions as well as the genuine danger and threat of coronavirus”. University student Ruben Alfredo, 19, insisted things had got “out of hand” at his birthday bash in May 2021, landing him with a £10,000 fine, while 41-year-old Annika Barrett received a £120 penalty for her lockdown-busting birthday celebration at home in Peckham on December 23, 2020.
London’s courts have come under fire for the way in which Covid rule-breakers have been dealt with. Hundreds were wrongly convicted when the pandemic laws were rushed through and misused by police, and a Standard investigation revealed how scores in London have been prosecuted effectively in secret through the Single Justice Procedure. Now the spotlight is shining on Downing Street and the rules it imposed, and there are calls for an amnesty on Covid prosecutions and renewed focus on how the laws were applied.
The Joe and the Juice incident in the third national lockdown offers an alarming insight into how forceful the police could be. When two people were spotted inside the Dean Street juicebar at 3am, officers went in with their Tasers raised. “Both male and female was red-dotted”, PC Michael Trype told the court. “I proceeded towards the toilets and found five other females sitting down inside of the toilets on the floor. I also found a male hiding behind the toilet door.” The prosecution of one staff member, who later explained they were “having a work gathering”, ultimately collapsed at court with the Met offering no explanation for the deployment of the Tasers.
Perhaps the most damaging of the allegations engulfing Downing Street revolve around boozy parties at Number 10 on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021. Just a couple of miles away in Hackney, on the day of the funeral itself, Vianna McKenzie-Bramble threw a 27th birthday party with a bouncy castle which earned a £12,000 fine. Her bash drew the ire of a police officer who called it “totally unacceptable and disrespectful”, words that may well be ringing in the Government’s ears. Rules at the time limited the numbers at funerals and meant the Queen sat alone to say goodbye to her beloved husband.
While the political maelstrom threatens to topple the PM and a police investigation looms large over Westminster, the relentless pursuit of ordinary people through the courts for breaking the Covid rules continues unabated. Last week, Londoners were fined £7,000 each for refusing to stay in a Covid quarantine hotel and a £300 fine was levied against a man who met others in a car at a north London beauty spot to mark New Year 2020. Pressure is now on Scotland Yard’s inquiry and Sue Gray’s report to reassure the public of integrity and fairness in the way Covid justice has been meted out.